“In 1962, prep- arations for space- science investi- gations on manned missions were under- taken by NASA on the assumption that man’s flexibility, judgement, sensory perceptions, and manipulative abilities would be useful in performing a variety of experiments. The soundness of this assumption has been borne out by the early two-man Gemini flights when man’s unique ability to control, modify, and reschedule contributed greatly to the success of the scientific portion of the missions.”
– George E. Mueller & Homer E. Newell, Associate Administrators at NASA.
“This is the saddest moment of my life…”
– Astronaut Edward H. White on re-entering the Gemini IV spacecraft after his space walk.
On today’s date, June 3 in 1965 Lt. Col. Ed White, USAF became the first American to walk in space. And while it was a dangerous maneuver, his ability to adapt, his “sensory perceptions and manipulative abilities” spoken of with such glowing pride and optimism by the two men from NASA as being the special province of man — these qualities displayed by Col. White made the space walk more than a mere success. It made it into such a real and distinct pleasure that he was reluctant to cut it short.
NASA and Project Gemini
After John F. Kennedy’s setting of putting a man on the moon as the goal of American space exploration (5/21/61) the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) set to developing manned space travel. Project Apollo would take man to the moon. But an interim project was needed to establish man’s ability to not only go into space as with the Mercury flights, but also to exist and work in space for the time necessary to make it to the moon… up to two weeks. This became the goal of Project Gemini; to launch two men into space, to have them orbit the earth and to perform various scientific experiments while they were there, and to gradually increase the amount of time that they were in space. A key goal for the Gemini program was for astronauts to develop the ability to walk in space… to float outside but tethered to the space capsule.
Gemini IV and White’s Walk in Space
So it was that a Titan II launch vehicle lifted the Gemini IV spacecraft into orbit on today’s date in 1965 carrying it’s crew of command Pilot James A. McDivitt, and Edward H. White II. The plan was for the craft to rendezvous with the spent second stage of the Titan II rocket, but for various technical reasons this did not work out. But the next move worked out brilliantly as Ed White, after waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the OK from McDivitt leapt at 3;45 ET into the great unknown void of space, held to the Gemini IV craft only by a cable.
What must it have felt like to be floating weightlessly there above the earth? Well it was apparently exhilarating, because White was able to improvise his movements. He had with him a hand-held maneuvering oxygen jet-gun with which to maneuver. But this little item ran out of fuel after the first three minutes of his walk. But White responded by twisting his body around and pulling on the tether. He improvised as only man could. He also took many photographs of the earth, as well as repairing a faulty hinge on the hatch to the Gemini IV craft. He was enjoying himself so much that eventually McDivitt had to order him to return, thus prompting the above quote about how sad he was to end his space jaunt. He had been floating in space for @ 23 minutes.
Sadly, not all the endings could be so happy as Col. White’s space walk was. Space travel is an extremely dangerous undertaking as we have learned all too often since then. Regrettably,the disaster with the Space Shuttle Challenger was not the first such set of fatalities suffered by our country. On February 21, 1967, Col. White, along with Flight Commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Pilot Roger Chaffee were all killed when a flash fire swept through the command module of the Apollo I spacecraft as it underwent tests at Cape Kennedy. But the spirit of exploration would not be extinguished… the Apollo program would go on to place man on the moon. And Col. White would be remembered as a truly brave and intrepid explorer by generations of school children who went to schools that bear his name, or who built plastic models of him… as I did back in the late 1960’s.
“Earth Photographs from Gemini III, IV and V “– Scientific and Technical Info. Div., NASA, Washington D.C., 1967